Springfield series comes to an end as Illini host Chicago State


Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) dribbles around his defender during the game against North Dakota State at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, Illinois, on Sunday, November 15, 2015. The Illini won 80-74.

By Alex Roux

The Capital Games series is coming to an end.

Illinois hosts Chicago State on Monday in Springfield, and you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t relieved that it’s the Illini’s final game at Prairie Capital Convention Center.

Springfield was a logical choice when looking for a temporary home for Illini basketball in the midst of the ongoing State Farm Center renovation. The state capital is a large, downstate population center. It’s within easy driving distance of a handful of other small Central Illinois cities, including Champaign. A lot of Illini fans live in the area.

The convention center itself is centrally located in downtown Springfield, just a couple of minutes removed from the interstate. It’s fairly modern and certainly an adequate facility for what Illinois would need to host five nonconference games in November.

But the Capital Games series certainly hasn’t done Illinois basketball any favors.

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That’s not an indictment of Springfield or the PC3, which have been as accommodating as possible. It’s also not an indictment of the generally sparse and listless crowds who have witnessed Illinois win two games (including one exhibition) and lose just as many. The Illini have immediately fallen behind by double digits in each of the three regular season games so far, taking the electricity out of the building early. The lack of a video board and entertainment during timeouts and halftime has left a noticeable void in the game day fan experience as well.

Hindsight is 20/20, but anyone who couldn’t tell before must now realize the disadvantage the Illini have put themselves in by scheduling their toughest slate of November home games in recent memory in a year where “home” is 90 miles from the Illinois campus.

The team has stayed in a hotel attached to the PC3 for two consecutive weekends, which is undoubtedly draining players’ energy and throwing game day routines for a loop. The games are considered neutral site games, but I’m not sure that the boost Illinois will receive in the RPI rankings is worth the toll that opening with such tough matchups away from home has likely taken.

Obviously no one could have anticipated the rash of injuries that has crippled the Illini roster, pushing a young team further from any sort of comfort zone and forcing head coach John Groce to start backups and walk-ons.

The circumstances have culminated in a hollow experience at the Capital Games, similar to a relative’s birthday party you’re obliged to attend, where most of the guests are checking their watches waiting for it to end.

Groce and his players will be happy to be home for good after tonight’s game, where maybe they can get healthy, find some stability and win some games. They should certainly come out on top tonight against a Chicago State team ranked as one of the worst in Division I basketball.

Since Chicago State shouldn’t pose much of a threat, Illinois needs to use this game to improve defensively. The Illini defense has been awful, allowing 46 3-pointers to opponents in four games combined. The Illini’s scheme so far looks like it’s designed to allow a high volume of perimeter shots in exchange for stout interior defense, but they haven’t been much better defending the rim.

Illinois’ team defense certainly has the potential to improve as the season goes on, but Groce has to use games like tonight against weaker teams as effective teaching moments for his players. The Illini aren’t used to each other’s tendencies and roles on the defensive side of the ball yet, and in-game experience against Chicago State will be valuable since mistakes are less likely to affect the outcome of the game.

It’s been a tumultuous start to the season, but salvaging a win tonight will be the first step toward steadying the ship while closing the Capital Games on a positive note.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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